I haven't written anything for this site in a while, and despite the fact that I could fabricate any number of plausible excuses, the truth is that I've been dealing with mental health issues. I feel very strongly that mental health is something there should be more open dialogue about, but I can't say that it's easy or comfortable to talk about my own in any detail. There's a beautifully insightful quote by Albert Camus that captures the difficulty of facing these issues: “We all carry within us places of exile”. He was discussing revolution, but what strikes me about this quote is how much it also applies to those struggling with mental health, especially depression. I've struggled with depression for most of my life, but it's only been this year that I've pursued actual treatment for it. What I've discovered is that all that stuff people say about the first step being the hardest, an asking for help taking courage, is all more true than I believed.
Here's the thing about depression: It really sucks. It's difficult and frightening, and getting help for it isn't just a choice you make once. Every time you have a meltdown in therapy, or fear it isn't working, or just don't feel like going, you have to make that decision all over again. Every time you face those parts of your mind you were afraid of looking at, or have a relapse, or wonder if you even deserve help, you have to decide to ...more
I have lived around chickens all my life. My grandparents had a small egg farm, and when they retired, they always had a couple dozen chickens and ducks around for no other reason than that they liked their character. I live in the suburbs now, but we are allowed three hens, and their vicissitudes form a steady beat of panic and joy amidst the routine of Human Stuff that needs dealing with. So, when I came across Carolynn L. Smith and Sarah I. Zielinski’s article in the most recent Scientific American about new evidence for intelligence and even empathy in chickens, I rejoiced at scientific attention finally being focused on the complex social life of these wonderful animals.
Smith has been running experiments to test how chickens use their language in different situations, and the results show a degree of cunning that one usually only associates with humans or, let’s face it, cats. For instance, they have a call which means “there is a predator coming down from the sky” but they are very selective when they use it. As Smith explains, “A rooster that sees a threat overhead would make an alarm call if he knows there is a female nearby, but he would remain silent in the presence of a rival male.” More than that, if the rooster is in cover and sees a rival out by himself in the field, he will go ahead and make the call anyway, knowing that it will draw attention to his rival ...more
Nerds are destined to save secularism from itself. In our unreasonably, some might say disturbingly, passionate hearts lies the missing factor in the grand equation of a new age. A time when reason is married to a life worth the living.
That life is coming, and in the creation of it, we could learn a lot from a larp. Larping, once the dirty secret of the gaming community, is busting out in a big way. With documentaries like Darkon, feature films like Unicorn City, and books examining the past-time like Lizzie Stark's Leaving Mundania, larp has overcome its self-consciousness and is aimed straight at the hearts of a generation looking for a new sense of community. For those unfamiliar, larp stands for live action role play, and encompasses a robust variety of rich mystical escapism. At its most organized, it allows you to flee reality for a weekend and, dressed as a bard or goblin, live in a different universe for a while, playing your character in an elaborately crafted and exquisitely organized scenario with a couple hundred other similarly minded folk out in a forest or campground. In terms of immersive interpersonal experiences, there's really nothing comparable this side of, well, church.
It's a beautiful thing, really, the crossroads of so many skills that we don't get to exercise on a daily basis. Leadership and drama, costuming and music, set design and social networking, all meet in this one concentrated burst of creative output that I think anybody with the slightest ...more
Seventy years ago, amidst a world tearing itself apart every way it knew how, we needed super heroes of granite - unmovable objects of pure virtue to anchor ourselves in the thick of our diminishing trust of ourselves. Well, we weathered that storm, and many since, and have finally come back around to the conclusion that, basically, we're an ok lot, humanity. And our new conception of ourselves requires a new set of super heroes. I humbly suggest the Drag Queen.
I am completely in earnest - watch an episode of Ru Paul's Drag Race, and, somewhere in between the cat fighting and tucking, you'll find something utterly new and entirely necessary for our road forward: plasticity. As Catherine Malabou has pointed out in her philosophical works, this is the trait which will, more than anything, define success in the coming world - the ability to take on any role at any time, as opposed to the "I worked for this factory for 42 years" stick-to-itsmanship of the twentieth century. We need to conceive of ourselves less as unalterable units etched in stone, and more as exquisitely fluid creatures of chameleonish identity.
The question, of course, is how to do that while still maintaining a core that is, essentially, yourself. Just as our grandparents might have looked to Superman and Dick Tracy as stalwart exemplars to light their way in moments of doubt, so can we hoist up Pandora Boxx and Jinkx Monsoon as the heroes we look to when we need ...more
One of the unfortunate things we humans tend to do is rate a genius for invention as superior to a genius for explanation. We stand with (rightful) awe before the original insights of a Bernhard Riemann but shrug off the efforts of people who took brilliant but convoluted existing ideas and found a way for the mass of humanity to gain some purchase on them. But if something like calculus, which stumped a continent at its first unveiling, is second nature to sixteen and seventeen year old high schoolers now, it is largely because of those people who had a genius for reforming the clunky and abstract into something graspable but still faithful to the rigor of the original.
To be either a creative or explanatory genius is quite enough to earn our dazzled esteem, but to be both is to enter a slim minority of world figures indeed. Charles Darwin was one such, and I would rank English mathematician GH Hardy as another, but for most science-y people, if you say the words “brilliant explainer” and “genius scientist” in the same breath, they will respond, “Oh, you mean like Richard Feynman?”
And deservedly so. Yes, he’s been rather – merchandized – as of late, and with that over-exposure has come something of a backlash. “Oh, Feynman? I’m so done with that guy.” But if we step back, away from the t-shirts and novelty coffee mugs, maybe we can recall for a bit what made us fall in love with him in ...more
There is no way to start this piece without a confession. Until the age of nineteen, if you asked me which political party I identified with, I wouldn’t have hesitated to answer Republican. Having grown up first on a farm and then in the lap of Babbittish San Diego isolation, I didn’t even see my first Democrat until high school. The only thing I really knew was that it was a Democrat who led the charge that killed the Superconducting Super Collider project, and that was enough to earn wrathful ire from a kid with grainy hand-scanned pictures of atomic physicists lining his wall.
To give an idea of how much things have changed, my justification for identifying as Republican was that I felt they were pro-science, as demonstrated by their support of the SSC and distrust of anti-positivist academic trends, pro-environment in a Roosevelt conservationist mold, and pro-reason, as I heard in their relentless snickering at the vogue of popular spirituality drifting about in the late eighties and early nineties. I was president of our high school’s Teenage Republicans Club my sophomore year, and one of the first things I did was dedicate a meeting to the proposition that “Under God” should be taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance, a notion that the four or five people gathered there didn’t really have any problem with.
My atheism and Republicanism seemed like natural allies. I heard the pundits rage against self-indulgence, and nothing seemed to me more intellectually self-indulgent than Christianity. ...more
"Hey guys, I've got a new problem."
Back in college, those were the words that energized a hall. People would stop what they were doing, grab a whiteboard, and all join together for a moment to try and break whatever thorny problem one of us managed to stumble across. Sometimes it fell quickly, sometimes it took hours, but in those moments of working through a mathematical or scientific puzzle with a bunch of other nerds while shoveling candy and over-caffeinated soda into our maws, life was perfect.
There is nothing better than getting together with a small group of like-minded folk and tackling a problem that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything actually useful. Unfortunately, life after college doesn't present too many opportunities to engage in such activities. Friends specialize out into their own branches, move off to different places, and so that singularity of purpose and expansiveness of time dissipate.
But humans are clever primates, and some of the substitutes we've come up with can, at their best, entirely approximate the cooperative intellectual rush of bygone days. For a long while, that's the place that tabletop roleplaying games occupied - Dungeons and Dragons, Changeling, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, Vampire: The Masquerade, and dozens upon dozens more all gave adults the chance to meet a few hours every week and put their resources together in a creative, spontaneous setting to solve the problems concocted by their much put-upon Dungeon Masters.
And those were (and are) fantastic, and if you are refraining from looking ...more
It was a fine year for atheism. At the risk of being a bit tartish, I’d even call it VERY fine. American Atheists celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, Sylvia Broeckx made a beautiful film showing the world the day to day struggles and triumphs of your average atheist, Tombstone da Deadman and Shelley Segal both released elegant albums on atheist themes… we even got ourselves a new Doctor Who (not directly related to atheism, granted, but Whovianism seems to be the new common denominator amongst Our Kind, doesn’t it?)
There were, however, some embarrassing moments amongst the general progress, and as it’s a time of resolutions, here are three notions that might serve us well moving into 2014:
Let’s stop letting ourselves get drawn into petty fights.
Obviously, I’m thinking of the Billboard Wars. I wrote about this in the last Freethinker – how we let a stupid, stupid billboard (“Thank God you’re wrong!”) draw us into responding with a monumentally stupider one (“OMG: There is no God!”). As atheism grows more successful as a way of looking at the world, it’s also grown cockier, and one of the unfortunate side effects of cockiness is that it occludes your ability to figure out what fights are worthwhile and which are not.
My hope is that, in 2014, we’ll be able to watch Christians do deliciously self-destructive things in mis-guided attempts to regain their groove, and resist the urge to respond in turn at the cost of dignity. Clever we might be, but nobody is clever ...more
“One of the things you’ll never know without God is what it feels like to be completely outside of time, submerged in something both boundlessly immense and profoundly personal.”
It’s one of those things you hear at the end of a long, circular night – all of the standard arguments and counterarguments have been batted about the table, all the requisite statistics recapitulated, and, bleary-eyed and hoarse, the real issues that separate believers from non-believers start making their quiet voices at long last heard. And what those issues often amount to is a personal unwillingness, on both sides, to renounce a whole category of human experience as merely the phantoms of neural fancy.
For the religious, that depth of feeling that they get when they feel Jesus over their shoulder must be real, and they cannot comprehend how we stumble through our day without its eternally fortifying presence. For us, that wild rush of pure intellectual freedom that stands before the towering maw of entropy and says Go Ahead, Bring It, and which we can’t imagine another thinking creature mangling in the name of comfort. These are experiences that each side thinks as unknowable to the other, experiences that keep them reconciled to the rest of the intellectual contract they’ve signed.
The experience of altered time is one I hear rather a lot, and have always felt as something well within the confines of secular culture to accomplish. Some of my favorite bits of artistic production revolve around just this ability to take ...more
William Lane Craig has a surprise for us. In the newest (Nov/Dec 2013) issue of Philosophy Now, he announces that, not only is philosophical theism not dead, but it is actually the most vibrant part of modern American philosophy, beating archaically positivist atheists back in chaotic retreat whenever it unfurls its revolutionary new arguments for God's existence.
And what's more, Craig confidently claims, in the space of four pages he is going to present us seven of the freshest, most undeniable arguments that point towards the existence of God yet produced from this flourishing legion of great minds. I admit to being rather excited to read something new at long last, something that would really shake the foundations of my weaker assumptions and force me to grapple again with my philosophical principles. Sitting up with anticipation, I proceeded to the first of these brand new, entirely irrefutable arguments....
And it was the First Cause Argument, stated substantially the same way it was when its inner contradictions were revealed as such a century and a half ago. Gaze at these two initial steps, if you would:
1. Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.
2.If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.
Imagine my disappointment that, not only isn't this version an update or improvement on what has gone before, but it slips into the non-qualitative equivalence trap that the better versions of this argument have at least attempted to address for a while now (namely, that ...more